Perhaps it’s because I live in the South; or maybe it’s because February was Black History Month; or I suppose it could be because the Republican Party is still in a snit over the recent Presidential election; or, maybe it has to do with the phases of the moon. Whatever the reason, lately a number of (perhaps) well-meaning people have questioned the importance of a knowledge of American history, and of the significance of race in particular, in understanding both current events and prospects for the nation’s future. I’ve been asked why it’s necessary to keep “stirring all that stuff up.” Can’t we just “move on”? And yet, if only they’d put away their rose-colored glasses, these same individuals might have seen several significant examples, “ripped from the headlines,” of what happens when one emulates the ostrich in approaching the history of race in this country.
Very few historians believe that history is meaningless. If it were, then there goes the paycheck! Professional historians think the past can speak to us, if only we’d listen. The problem is that these “experts” don’t always agree on how particular people and events fit into the American story; because of their biases, they draw different “lessons” from the past, even though they arrive at them by looking at the same body of facts. We’re talking, in short, of the crucial difference between facts, discrete bits of evidence that have been proven true, and interpretations, how historians assemble some of the facts to create a picture of the past that makes sense to them. It is this confusion between facts and interpretation that is the source of several recent controversies over the importance of the burden of race to an understanding of the present-day United States.
For instance, following Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency in 2008, one pundit after another argued that we were now living in a “post-racial America.” Anyone who thinks the past five years reflect some sort of rosy, “post-racial America” has not been paying attention. Consider, for example, a recent column by the Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts. Conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh had informed his listeners that John Lewis might have avoided having his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers in Selma, Alabama, forty-eight years ago, if only he’d been armed; so Pitts suggested, tongue in cheek, that Limbaugh would probably have given the same advice to Rosa Parks in Montgomery a decade earlier. “David from Georgia,” in an e-mail to Pitts, contended that of course Limbaugh would have “insisted that Ms. Parks REMAIN seated.” Pitts responded, “The idea that, in Alabama, in 1955, as a black woman was committing an illegal act of civil disobedience, this particular white man would have done what 14 other white passengers did not is, well, rather fanciful.” According to Pitts, “It is easy to ‘stand up’ for the right thing when doing so requires only paying lip service 50 years after the fact, something at which Limbaugh and his brethren have become scarily adept.” The columnist concluded, “Can we find comfort in delusions like [‘David from Georgia’ does]? Of course not.”
Then there were the ill-timed remarks of Emory University President James Wagner, who, in an article in the school’s alumni magazine, supported his plea for compromise in today’s Washington by citing the (in)famous “three-fifths compromise” adopted by the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, which counted a slave as 3/5 of a white person, for purposes of both taxation and representation (Article I, Section 2). The Internet soon exploded with harsh criticism of Wagner’s argument, because the “compromise” he praised came at the expense of slaves, and Wagner promptly backpedalled. In response to this brouhaha, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s political cartoonist, Mike Luckovich, pictured a chastened Wagner being told by a diverse trio of Emory students that, “We accept three-fifths of your apology.” Ouch!
In his take on the Wagner controversy, columnist Jim Galloway wrote that “Mixing history with politics in Georgia. . . is like a trip to a suburban dog park. Keep your eyes on the ground, because it’s still nothing but a minefield.” Despite Galloway’s wildly mixed metaphor, he had a point. For example, in 2002, Democratic Governor Roy Barnes pushed through the legislature a new, less “Confederate,” state flag, to the cheers of Northern liberals, then found himself a one-term Governor, courtesy of angry (white) Georgia voters. Then there was the Georgia Republican legislator who, during Black History Month no less, offered a bill that would have given the legislature “the power to determine which federal laws and regulations this state would be obliged to follow” (AKA, “Nullification,” an issue settled with finality by President Andrew Jackson in 1832-33).
Once Nullification was quashed, unhappy Southerners were left with “Plan B,” the so-called “right of secession,” which, incredibly, some modern Americans have revived as a solution to their unhappiness with President Obama. Folks, that train left the station in the spring of 1861, and, by the time it reached its destination, Appomattox, in 1865, it had cost perhaps 620,000 Americans their lives. As one Georgia academic commented, “When you don’t know your history, you allow other people to dictate that history. If you leave it to just a few people, you can get burned—there’s no doubt about it.”
AJC op-ed contributor Rob Teilhet wrote that the current Shelby County, Alabama, challenge to Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act relies on the idea that there has been sufficient “progress . . . on matters of race that preclearance requirements are no longer necessary.“ But, Teilhet claimed, while it “is true that the South has made progress on the issue of race,” nothing has yet invalidated William Faulkner’s oft-quoted assessment of the heavy hand of the past, quoted above. Shannon McCaffrey and Daniel Malloy added that even those who claim the Voting Rights Act has “fed hyper-polarization” in southern politics believe that, “on balance, the act may still be worth the trade-off,” because it had both produced effective protections for minority voters and led to an increase of minority officeholders since it took effect. The Supreme Court began considering the Shelby County suit on the same day the nation’s first black President dedicated a statue of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, which suggests that the past remains relevant to an understanding of the present–and that it sometimes has a powerful taste for irony.
On March 2, a New York Times editorial writer noted that the annual visit to Selma, Alabama, by a congressional delegation led by Georgia’s John Lewis, to commemorate the brutal March 7, 1965, attack on civil rights marchers, including Lewis, by state troopers and other thugs, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, “should remind [the justices of the Supreme Court] of the enormous cost many Americans have paid to win the right to vote, and why that remains under persistent threat and must be defended.” This bloody incident played a key role in energizing American public opinion, helping to apply enough pressure on Congress that, a few months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law.
Commenting on oral arguments offered before the Supreme Court in that case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, conservative columnist George Will contended that there has been so much progress in race relations, and in the matter of voting rights in particular, since 1965, that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which deals mainly with racial discrimination in the South, was no longer necessary. (Or, as Justice Antonin Scalia inelegantly put it, the measure was “a perpetuation of racial entitlement.”) On the other hand, New York Times correspondent Charlie Savage pointed out that, although it is true that, if Section 5 were declared unconstitutional, Section 2, which applies to the entire country, would still be in effect, the federal government’s oversight of voting rights under Section 2 would be more limited, and thus less effective, than under Section 5. Or, as noted Southern historian Orville Vernon Burton argues, “Revolutions can and do go backward, especially in economically difficult times. . .; racial justice is often sacrificed when the economic pie shrinks.”
Let’s do the math here: the Civil War ended in 1865; the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965. And, in between, there was the “Age of Jim Crow,” generally reckoned as the nadir of existence for African Americans in this country, because, despite the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution as a result of the War, white Americans, north and south, blithely ignored the constitutional mandate to protect the civil and political rights of former slaves and their descendants. Is it any wonder that African Americans remain leery of the intentions of whites, especially those in the modern Republican Party, when it comes to insuring that all Americans have equal rights? As a black resident of McComb, Mississippi, which saw its share of bloodshed during the Civil Rights Movement, told a reporter when asked if he accepted the claims of whites that racially motivated politics were a thing of the past, “I think they’re full of it.”
The nub of this problem was noted by former Atlantan Tracy Thompson, who pointed to the “cognitive dissonance” she encountered growing up here, “the vague unease we feel when what we see and experience doesn’t quite fit with what we believe, or want to believe.” Thompson added that, “Cognitive dissonance has long been one of the South’s principal exports: Our region, where so much of our nation’s history has happened, is also home to generations of Southerners who have devoted themselves to ensuring that only a carefully vetted version of that history is remembered.” For instance, one tactic in this campaign has been to deny that the Civil War was about slavery; but, as historian Orville Burton states, “When slavery is left out, the history is distorted; and when history is distorted, people feel justified in harboring anger, bitterness, and resentment.”
Discussing the impact of the destruction of Moscow in 1812, Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace that, “Even those [Russians] who, being fond of talking on intellectual subjects and expressing their feelings . . ., unconsciously imported into their talk a shade of hypocrisy or falsity or else of useless fault-finding and bitterness against persons, whom they blamed for what could be nobody’s fault.” To some extent, this dictum applies to the fulminations of today’s op-ed writers, political speechifiers, and, yes, bloggers, when confronting the related issues of race and history. Yet, while some commentators merely ransack the past looking for “facts” to support their particular “spin” on current issues, the worst of the lot are those who dismiss the idea that the past has any relevance at all to the present, and they do so at their peril.
In short, we should not stop “stirring all that stuff up” just to “get along,” if “getting along” means ignoring the weight of the past, and, thus, refusing to confront the impact of long-buried issues on the present, especially the burden of race. Put another way, while we certainly can ignore the past in confronting the present and the future, doing so comes with a cost. And, while we individually might be willing to pay that cost, American society would surely be the worst for it.
Orville Vernon Burton, “The South as ‘Other,’ the Southerner as Stranger,” The Journal of Southern History 79 (Feb. 2013): 7-50.
Lincoln Caplan, Editorial, “Bloody Sunday Revisited,” New York Times (NYT), Mar. 2, 2013.
Laura Diamond, “Emory chief blasted for slavery reference,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), Feb. 21, 2013.
Jim Galloway, “Politics plus history can equal problems,” AJC, Feb. 21, 2013.
Mike Luckovich cartoon, AJC, Feb. 22, 2013.
Shannon McCaffrey and Daniel Malloy, “Voter law deepens political divides,” AJC, Feb. 26, 2013.
Leonard Pitts, “No, Rush wouldn’t have stood up for Rosa Parks,” reprinted in AJC, Feb. 21, 2013.
Campbell Robertson, “A Divide on Voting Rights in a Town Where Blood Spilled,” NYT, Mar. 1, 2013.
Mary Sanchez, “Some states still up to old tricks trying to deny vote,” reprinted in AJC, Mar. 5, 2013.
Charlie Savage, “Decision on Voting Law Could Limit Oversight,” NYT, Feb. 28, 2013.
Rob Teilhet, “Politics haven’t left issue of race in past,” AJC, Feb. 26, 2013.
Tracy Thompson, “Leaving Atlanta,” AJC, Mar. 3, 2013.
George Will, “To progressives, a civil wrong is a threat forever,” reprinted in AJC, Mar. 3, 2013.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: